OLYMPIA, Wash. — All of Washington state's students must be given the option for in-person learning at least two days a week by April 19, according to a pending emergency proclamation from Gov. Jay Inslee.
The governor is issuing an executive order that requires all kindergarten through sixth-grade students an opportunity to engage in both online and in-person learning by April 5.
All older students must be offered the opportunity by April 19.
By April 19, all districts must meet at least 30% of average weekly instructional hours as on-campus learning for all students.
No student can be offered fewer than two, partial days of in-person learning.
School districts will be asked to exceed the 30% minimum in-person instructional hours and must reach the maximum capacity and frequency of in-person instruction that can be provided when all health and safety recommendations are met.
The order also asks the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to use some of the money from the American Rescue Plan Act to be used for funding mental health services for students while directing the Department of Health and Health Care Authority to work on recommendations on how to support behavioral health needs of children.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Washington Education Association said the educators’ union agrees a safe return to schools is best for those who choose. However, spokesperson Julie Popper said the governor’s proclamation assumes all schools can provide safe in-person learning.
“Some districts are not yet prepared to safely welcome students back to buildings,” Popper said in a statement. “Local unions are actively bargaining with districts to ensure the return to buildings is as safe as possible. Shortcutting those safety processes is not in the best interest of our students, staff, or communities. School districts must partner with local unions and community groups – including communities of color – to ensure safety measures and robust mental health supports are in place before returning to buildings and for families that opt for remote learning.”
Popper also pointed out that most Washington school districts already offer a hybrid model of instruction and “only a few” remain fully remote. As of March 1, 40.9% of students are receiving in-person instruction weekly, according to OSPI.
The announcement comes after Washington state moved teachers up in priority for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and more schools begin offering virus testing.
In February, conservative think tank Washington Policy Center found that the state is falling behind in the rest of the country for in-person instruction. Aggregate data shows the state's percentage of students in classrooms is among the lowest in the country, the group said.
The group's data didn't line up with that from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. But either way, the number of students who attend in-person classes are low when compared to other parts of the country.
Inslee and Reykdal have been putting pressure on schools to return to in-person learning.
The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has $714 million in COVID-19 relief for schools, which is only available to districts with a plan to return. As of March 12, 35 school districts, including Seattle Public Schools, didn't qualify.
In the past few weeks, Inslee has been touring schools that have had in-person learning to encourage other districts to see how it can be done without outbreaks.
While many districts have plans for some form of in-person learning, some of the larger districts in the state, including Seattle and Kent, have struggled to announce a plan for even the smallest children to return to class.
Meanwhile, educators are now eligible for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine after the state moved them up in priority following President Joe Biden's call for states to put teachers on the priority list. Teachers' unions in the state had previously called for educators to be vaccinated before more students return to the classroom.
Parents of students who attend school in the Northshore School District said they were glad Inslee took action.
“I think it's about time that somebody has stepped in and gave that hard, fast deadline for schools. We've seen schools across the country that have been in person since August full time and they’ve been successful,” parent Jennifer Riley said.
Riley is a nurse and mother to two teens – a daughter who is a senior at Woodinville High School and a son who is a freshman. She said she started a new job that enables her to work from home.
“So that I can be there for him, because I am really worried about his mental health. You think of teens that they'll be okay being by themselves and they’re really not,” Riley said.
Other parents like Dominique France, whose children attend private school, said students across the state are ready for in-person learning at 100% capacity now.
“There are no more excuses. We can do it in the private schools. Why can't we do it in the public schools?” France said.
The Northshore School District, which serves Bothell and Woodinville, provides public education for up to 22,000 students and employs more than 2,100 staff.